How Should Educators Respond to the Obama Administration's Concession on Test and Punish?

The outgoing secretary of education, Arne Duncan, now admits, "I can't tell you how many conversations I'm in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking." Duncan does so as the Obama administration's Testing Action Plan now invites states to correct its biggest education debacle, the nonstop testing that has sucked the oxygen out of schools.

The timing couldn't be better for Oklahoma, and I'm sure most other states will jump at the chance to free themselves from the Duncan/Obama imposition of the "junk science" known as value-added evaluations. On the eve of Oklahoma's deadline for determining whether to dump the quantitative portion of its Teacher and Leader Effectiveness (TLE) system, the Obama administration is backing away from its once-clear demand that test score growth must be included in holding individuals accountable.

The quantitative portion of the TLE, which Oklahoma was strong-armed into adopting, was based on the test-loving Colorado evaluation system. But, President Obama now "has directed the Department of Education (the Department) to review its policies to address any places where the Administration may have contributed to the problem of overemphasis on testing burdening classroom time."

Before the Obama administration coerced more than two-thirds of the states into adopting valued-added teacher evaluations, around 20% of educators and their students were subject to high stakes testing. The administration gave states an offer they couldn't refuse and demanded that they create a score for virtually every teacher in the country.

That is why NCLB was destructive -- why the harm done by teach-to-the-test increased dramatically under Obama. Almost every public school student was required to be tested or to have his education altered to generate a punitive metric for holding adults accountable.

The Obama administration has backed away from its most surrealistic form of micromanaging classroom instruction and it now says, "No standardized test should ever be given solely for educator evaluation." In other words, the administration is distancing itself from the Colorado true believers who mandated the testing of 1st grade art students on Matisse. But, the new guideline does more than that. If the administration is true to its word, Oklahoma and others can quickly liberate most of our teachers - and our students - from test and punish.

The Obama administration famously ignored the advice from American Statistical Association, American Educational Research Association, the National Academy of Education, and other social scientists as it required states to use tests and statistical models for purposes that they were not designed for. Now, it claims, "States and districts should also ensure that assessments are only used for the purposes for which they were intended and designed."

In regard to this issue, we should shift the focus away from the damage done to the teaching profession by high stakes testing to the even more important issue of children being hurt by the bubble-in obsession. States and districts should first refuse to punish third graders for failing to pass Common Core tests or other non-reading tests. If states want to retain third graders for not being able to read well enough, they should use a reading test to make such a determination. Moreover, states should refuse to deny diplomas to high school students (who may not plan to attend college) because they don't pass Common Core or other college-readiness tests.

The administration also promises to "work with local teachers and principals to develop and provide guidance to states and districts on how to engage educators to review the quality and quantity of local assessments." It praises Minnesota where teachers endorsed a pilot program for peer review and where "Minnesota will offer guidance as stated above but has no statutory authority compelling districts to use state MCA assessments in a significant manner for teacher evaluation."

Of course, the overwhelming majority of the nation's educators would completely strip the test score growth component out of any accountability framework for individuals. The best we could previously do, however, was help kick the value-added can down the road. This wasted money and educators' energy, but it kept invalid and unreliable test score growth models from inflicting too much damage in the short run. It did so under the assumption that states would eventually tire of flushing those resources down the toilet in order to appease the federal government.

Now, the USDOE is basically inviting that delaying tactic. It endorses the District of Columbia's backtracking. D.C. had once proclaimed its value-added evaluations as a great success but now it is seen as a model because it "has temporarily removed its value-added measures from its teacher and leader evaluation systems and continues to focus on providing quality feedback on its Teaching and Learning Framework/Leadership Framework."

The Obama administration has not only demanded that student growth models be used as a part of "multiple measures," it has insisted that these flawed and destructive metrics must count anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of teachers' evaluations. Being realists, some educators have tried to water down test score growth metrics so that they become meaningless and thus harmless.

It could be argued that we need to give reformers a fig leaf, and accept a minuscule portion of an evaluation -- say 1% -- so that we don't hurt corporate reformers' feelings as we "monkey wrench" their scheme. If systems want to waste incredible amounts of money on testing and computer systems for keeping score in order to avoid admitting a mistake, that's on them.

Guess what? The administration now supports Minnesota's plan which allows "its districts to include state assessment based growth at any percent (even less than 1 percent)." The administration apparently agreed to this because Minnesota can pretend that it is gauging student learning growth measured by other factors.

And that suggests the obvious first step. Oklahoma and other states should immediately grab the low-hanging fruit and stop the indefensible policy of using test score growth guesti-mates for sanctioning individuals. I'd hate to have to continue to waste scarce resources on test-driven accountability, but I'd be willing to engage in a discussion of whether bubble-in growth should count as .01% of 1%, or .5% or even .99% of 1% of a teacher's evaluation. It would be a process worthy of The Onion.

I hadn't known enough about the Minnesota waiver the administration now claims to read in such a manner. So, I'd missed the humor of the situation. If the administration is willing to contort itself into such a pretzel in order to free us from the quantitative portion of teacher evaluations, we should enjoy the ride. If it will go through such contortions to avoid admitting a mistake and to not offend the Billionaires Boys Club who dumped this fiasco on us, it should prompt more than groans.

We should hold the administration to its latest promise and enjoy the belly laughs that come from witnessing what it will do to keep from admitting a mistake. Their convoluted efforts to allow the rejection of corporate reformers' mandates on testing (while denying that that is what they are doing) will document the disrespect the administration showed towards teachers, students, and parents as it tried to mandate test, sort, reward, and punish on our entire nation's schools.

But, it will do more! It will promote good health! After all, medical science says that a laugh a day can keep a heart attack away. So, laughing at the administration's twists and turns, while it extricates itself from the bubble-in mania it created, may be the best medicine for our bodies as well as our schools.